Kansas And Evolution

In This Movie, Toto, We Can't Go Home Again

Many years ago, in the city of Cochin in South India, I found myself attending the World Understanding Day of the local Rotary Club. The featured speaker was an anti-evolution American creationist, a certain Duane T. Gish, who came armed with a slide show designed to prove, as I recall, that the chief reason for the malaise of Today's Youth was the propagation, by the world's school systems, of the pernicious teachings of poor old Charles Darwin.

Today's Youth was being taught that it was descended from monkeys! Consequently, and understandably, it had become alienated from society, and depressed. The rest -- its drift, its criminality, its promiscuity, its drug abuse -- inevitably followed.

I was interested to note that a few minutes into the lecture the habitually courteous Indian audience simply stopped listening. The hum of conversation in the room gradually rose until the speaker was all but drowned out. Not that this stopped Duane. Like a dinosaur who hasn't noticed he's extinct, he just went bellowing on.

This summer, however, Mr. Gish's lizardy kind will have received cheering news. The Kansas Board of Education's decision to delete evolution from the state's recommended curriculum and from its standardized tests is, in itself, powerful evidence against the veracity of Darwin's great theory. If Charles Darwin were able to visit Kansas in 1999 he would be obliged to concede that here was living proof that natural selection doesn't always work, that the unfittest sometimes survive and that the human race is therefore actually capable of evolving backward toward, rather than away from, those youth-depressing apes.

Nor is Darwin the only casualty. The Big Bang apparently didn't happen in the Kansas area, either; or, at least, it's just one of the available theories. Thus in one pan of the scales we now have General Relativity, the Hubble telescope and all the imperfect but painstakingly accumulated learning of the human race; and, in the other, the Book of Genesis. In Kansas, the scales balance.

Good teachers, it must be said, are appalled by their state board's decision. But respected professors publicly concede that it's going on everywhere and the creationists are winning. In Alabama, for example, a sticker on textbooks hilariously suggests that since no one was present when life first appeared on earth, we can't ever know the facts. Seems you just had to be there.

Or, not so hilariously. This stuff would be funny if it weren't so unfunny. American fundamentalists may be pleased to know that elsewhere in the world -- Karachi, Pakistan, for example -- the blinkered literalists of another faith have been known to come into university classes armed to the teeth and to threaten lecturers with instant death if they should deviate from the strict Quranic view of science (or anything else). Might it be that America's notorious gun culture will now also take up arms against knowledge itself?

Nor should the rest of us feel too smug. The war against religious obscurantism, a war many people believe had been won long ago, is breaking out all over, with ever greater force. All sorts of gobbledygook are back in style. The pull of stupidity grows everywhere more powerful.

Meanwhile, slowly, beautifully, the search for knowledge continues. Ironically, in the whole history of the sciences, there has never been so rich or revolutionary a golden age. Big science is unlocking the universe, tiny science is solving the riddles of life. And, yes, the new knowledge brings with it new moral problems, but the old ignorances are not going to help us solve these.

One of the beauties of learning is that it admits its provisionality, its imperfections. This scholarly scrupulousness, this willingness to admit that even the most well-supported of theories is still a theory, is now being exploited by the unscrupulous. But that we do not know everything does not mean we know nothing. Not all theories are of equal weight. The moon, even the moon over Kansas, is not made of green cheese.

If the over-abundant new knowledge of the modern age is, let's say, a tornado, then Oz is the extraordinary, Technicolored new world in which it has landed us, the world from which -- life not being a movie -- there is no way home. In the immortal words of Dorothy Gale, "Toto, something tells me we're not in Kansas any more."

To which one can only add: thank goodness, baby, and amen.

Salman Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses. This essay was distributed by The New York Times Special Features/Syndication Sales. 

1999 Salman Rushdie. Viewpoint is a forum for varied opinions and does not necessarily represent the stance of Americans United.